Turning Dirty Coal into Clean Energy
Today's expensive gasoline is making people look for alternatives. That has opened doors of opportunity for entrepreneurs such as Andrew Perlman, who is betting that the "clean" fuel of future will be made from one of humanity's oldest -- and dirtiest: coal.
Perlman wants to turn coal into clean natural gas. The concept isn't new. In the 1800s, cities such as Boston used big, dirty ovens to turn coal into town gas to fuel streetlights and gas lamps in homes. During World War II, Nazi Germany turned coal into liquid fuel to run tanks.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government promoted research projects to produce gas and liquid fuel from coal. But those efforts were abandoned after the crisis passed. Now, instability in the Middle East and record-high prices for petroleum products have prompted a new wave of interest in technologies to turn coal into natural gas and liquid fuel. For entrepreneurs such as Perlman, these technologies hold the promise of producing cleaner fuel out of coal, which is abundant and affordable.
"The U.S. has more coal than any other country in the world. It's actually about as cheap as dirt," said Perlman, co-founder and CEO of Greatpoint Energy, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company.
GreatPoint Energy is refining a process called catalytic gasification to convert coal into methane or substitute natural gas. In their process, coal is mixed with a catalyst and fed into a gasifier: a tall, narrow, metal cylindrical container.
Inside the gasifier, the coal and the catalyst are combined with steam and subjected to pressure. That causes a chemical reaction that converts them into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. GreatPoint says the key to its new technology is the catalyst it uses. Perlman says it's a combination of readily available metals, but so far, the ingredients are secret.
Because of that catalyst, GreatPoint's process works at a lower temperature than other technologies, which makes the process much cheaper. The catalyst also enables GreatPoint to separate out about half of the carbon dioxide, a chief cause of climate change. (The company plans to sell that carbon dioxide to be injected into oil or gas wells to facilitate production.) Other pollutants also are removed at the plant, which makes the product much cleaner than the synthesis gas produced by other gasification processes.
Greatpoint's technology works in the laboratory. Sometime this summer, the company will learn whether it also will work at a small-scale plant in Des Plains, Ill.
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